Wake-up call for the Far East?

Shwezigon Paya, a Buddhist temple located in Nyaung-U, a town near Bagan

German-speaking markets Germany, Austria and Switzerland are “solid” overall but this isn’t translating to increased bookings to the Far East – in fact, longtime favourite Thailand is “behind”, a check with several tour operators shows.

“The market is solid overall. But the Far East is slightly down. Biggest decrease is Thailand,” said Hotelplan Group CEO, Thomas Stirnimann.

Overall slowdown in European travellers wanting to do longhaul trips to Asia; Shwezigon Paya in Myanmar pictured

Tourasia, which bills itself the biggest specialised tour operator in Switzerland for trips to Asia, is seeing overall bookings to Asia being three per cent behind last year, with Thailand reporting the biggest decline of seven per cent, managing director Stephan Roemer told TTG Asia.

Its subsidiary in Germany, Tischler Reisen, however, is recording increased bookings for Asia – except for Thailand.

Some Asian DMCs are feeling the ripples. “There seems to be a continued slowdown in overall sales to Asia from the UK and, as I’m hearing from the market, overall in the longhaul marketplace,” said Tour East senior vice president of sales & marketing – international, Chris Bailey.

The pattern may be a wake-up call for popular Asian destinations such as Thailand. When discussing why, a few issues thread through: value-for-money proposition; impact of political problems; environmental – not just erupting volcanoes but overcrowding too; and disruption in the traditional tour operator business.

Beach resort margins are thinning and is a pie that is increasingly being sliced off by OTA and direct bookings. Customers who can book beaches themselves want more; in turn, tour operators are stepping up on areas where they can provide experiences. Hence, Vietnam and the Philippines are “up” for Hotelplan Group, as are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for Tourasia.

“The infrastructure for Vietnam and the Philippines did improve and people are prepared to discover new destinations after having visited Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,” said Stirnimann, who has reduced charter commitments to Thailand and is seeing an increase in average sales price per person to Asia.

Asia has always prided on its value-for-money proposition. Well, here’s news. “We get more and more comments that the price to value ratio of the main destinations such as Phuket and Samui is not a given anymore,” said Roemer. “Hotel costs – wine, dine, spa, etc – are often much more expensive than in Europe. We come across such comments by clients more and more.”

David Kevan, director, Chic Locations UK, said with “genuine uncertainty about job security” arising from Brexit, UK clients are looking for value. But he believes Asia will score over Europe still.

He is, however, more concerned about Asia’s image. “We show great images of uncrowded beaches and free-flowing rivers, but the reality is now different with the desire of many countries to chase numbers. If clients return home with stories of long immigration queues, traffic jams and cheek-by-jowl beaches, future clients will quickly look for alternatives elsewhere. Unfortunately more tourist boards in the region have a myopic view of tourism,” he said.

The Rohingya issue does not help South-east Asia’s image either. “Our enquiries for Myanmar have slowed. This has nothing to do with safety issues but it is almost totally to do with the Rohingya situation. Unlike Asian travellers who seem largely untroubled by it from what I read in TTG Asia, Myanmar is not seen as the place to go for Europeans. The same with commerce: while many of the ASEAN nations are continuing to push trade aggressively, most of the European countries have scaled back or at least keep their investments low profile.

“We continue to offer Myanmar. It is the client’s decision. We offer advice on travel, not politics,” he said.

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